Evoking emotion through song

Musician Emily Riordan uses songwriting as an outlet to say the things she needs to say, but can’t. Taranaki Community News caught up with her to hear about her upcoming EP, Waves.

Can you tell us about yourself and your style of music?
My first vivid musical memory is sitting at the piano as a child and teaching myself to play You Are my Sunshine by ear, and my mother in the next room calling out to let me know I was changing a chord two beats too early.

I am so lucky to have parents who found me a piano teacher when I expressed interest in lessons. Until then I had an implicit but very limited understanding of music, and learning music theory meant that in the future I could pick up just about any instrument that took my fancy – and so many of them did. I tried several different instruments through high school, and these days I teach piano and singing and still play guitar, bass, and drums regularly as well.

In general, I like to listen to and create melancholic music. I want to access feelings and ideas that for whatever reason I can’t talk or think about explicitly or publicly. There’s a lot of murky grey emotion that I don’t necessarily want to share but I do want to just sit with sometimes. My late discovery of Radiohead a few years ago has deeply shifted my experience of music and what it means to me. I strongly believe I’d be a very different person if I didn’t have songs as an outlet to say the things I need to say but can’t.

If you could have a dinner party with three musicians from throughout history, who would they be and what would you guys get up to?  
Thom Yorke, Bjork, and Edvard Grieg. I could learn so much from them all. The dinner party would mostly consist of me trying to rephrase the question “how did you think to put that note there?”. We might have a very difficult time communicating and I might be excluded from the conversation once they realise I’m not on their level. I would also have no idea what to cook for them.

You wrote your first song at the age of five, which is super impressive! What are the key ingredients for a good song?
I still remember parts of that song, it was about a place up in the clouds where you could go to sleep with angels flying around you. At that age most of the music I listened to was probably at church, so I suspect that idea was influenced by depictions of Heaven. I didn’t understand music theory at the time but in my head I heard chords and instrumentation. I can still hear it, like a very simple Disney song.

To me a good song is when the pieces all fit together in a way that evokes a feeling. It’s difficult to put into words. It’s very personal. You know it when you hear it. If I’m trying to create a good song myself I’m usually trying to recombine my favourite ingredients in a new way.

You’re releasing an EP in May, which is awesome. Can you tell us more about your EP?
I’ve called the EP Waves. The first track, Angel, is a re-release of a song that I did with an old friend from school who is now a producer, SHXSHI (Jake Evans). The other three are songs in the same style that we did together last year. They’ve all been written and recorded in the same way – Jake sends me an instrumental track (he calls it a beat because he’s cool and usually works with rappers and other cool folk) and I write and record a vocal part over it. I’m new to production myself, but I love Jake’s trip hop/trap sort of style so it’s exciting to be able to make songs that sound like that.

With each song I’ve tried to capture in a moment in time where I felt very strongly a certain way. Each song represents a person in my life and what I felt about them at a specific point. As an example, Angel deals with my feelings about an old lover and my regret at the way things ended between us. I address some fairly personal and specific things in the EP. Brian Molko of Placebo said something once that I’ve never forgotten, and that has been a huge influence on the way I write: “The more personal you make something, the more universal it becomes, because essentially we’re all made up of the same emotional stuff.”

If there was a movie made about your life, what would it be called and who would play you?
If ever I have enough of an impact on somebody for them to make a movie about me, I would hope they cast a beautiful but unknown actor to play me and that they don’t gloss over all the uncomfortable parts that have made me who I am. It must feel as true to life as possible, while still taking on more or less a traditional story shape.

You can find Emily on Facebook, Instagram, and SoundCloud.